BERKELEY-It was far from anything close to resembling pretty, but they'll take it, warts and all. The Cal basketball team opened its season tonight against Cal State Northridge, and, despite trailing at the half and a having a rough night at the free throw line, managed to come out on top with a closer-than-the-score 80-63 win on Tuesday night.
Cal (1-0) shot an abysmal 40% in the first half, and found itself down 37-36 at halftime to a squad with just one returning starter from an 11-21 team last season.
"We were able to come in at halftime and talk about some things that we needed to do against their zone," said junior forward Harper Kamp. "I think guys were able to kind of take a breath and relax and realize that they needed to be a little more aggressive instead of just taking one dribble and holding the ball. We stepped up our defense, as well, and were able to key in on a few things that were hurting us."
The Bears' biggest abuser in the first half was Rashaun McLemore, who abused true freshman Allen Crabbe to go 4-for-4 shooting, including 2-for-2 on three-pointers.
"He shot lights-out," said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery. "He got going, and he's-I would guess-a little streaky. He was feeling it. Allen is 6-5 with reasonably long arms, but that was obviously not affecting (McLemore) at all. He made a lot of his shots on freshmen kids that had never really had to be defending a really good player. When we put Jorge (Gutierrez) back in, all of the sudden, the faucet got turned off. It's just experience of knowing how you have to defend a guy like that."
McLemore finished the evening with a game-high 24 points, and added six rebounds and two steals.
A big problem in the first half was locking down the post, which allowed the Matadors to score six points in the paint and effectively kick the ball out to the perimeter, where Northridge (0-1) hit 6-of-9 from beyond the arc.
"It was where they caught the ball, for one thing," Montgomery said. "Our posts were not showing up on screens, and we got reluctant; we were scared to be beat. The post guys are supposed to show up and we're supposed to tag screens and we didn't do that, so we got caught. We didn't spend a whole lot of time on the scout in terms of what they were going to do. We kind of showed them what they were going to do, but we got caught on that stuff a lot."
After a halftime chat, the Bears cranked it up in the second, shooting 57.1% overall and 37.5% from beyond the arc, upping their shooting from three-point land by 12.5 percentage points. Cal went on a 24-7 run to open the second stanza to take a 60-44 lead with 9:54 to go.
"I thought we got more aggressive in the second half, in terms of making defense a bigger priority," Montgomery said. "One of the coaches had said at the half that they're shooting the lights out and we're not making at all. From that perspective, you feel like things could change. I would say that if Cal State Northridge can shoot the ball like they did in the first half all the time, they're going to have a damn good year. But, I don't know that they're that good of a shooting team. They sure did shoot it well in the first half."
But at the end of that 24-7 run, Montgomery decided to put in a group composed entirely of youngsters, electing to take out Markhuri Sanders-Frison, Kamp and Jorge Gutierrez off the floor. In their place was a lineup of Gary Franklin, Richard Solomon, Bak Bak, Crabbe and Brandon Smith.
"We've got to allow these young kids to learn," Montgomery said. "I've got to figure out, probably, some rotations where I have maybe two of those guys on the floor at any given time. Brandon should be able to fit into that category, as well, where I can have a little bit of a presence there with Brandon. At the same time, we're not going to get any better if we can't have these young guys learn what it's like, what the difference is and what they need to be able to do and how they need to be able to play and all of those things."
During that time, the Matadors hung with the baby Bears, cutting the deficit from 16 to 11 points.
"We're just going to have to get them in, and sometimes, they're going to make some mistakes," Montgomery said. "We're going to have to hope they learn from those mistakes."
Once the veterans were re-inserted-including Kamp, who had to leave with a tweaked ankle-Cal ran away with the game, upping the lead to as many as 21 points.
"I stepped on someone's ankle and tweaked it a little bit; it's fine, I'll get some ice on it tonight," said Kamp, who entered the postgame interview room sans footwear. "I think that (McLemore) was going on a little run there, and I think Coach wanted Jorge to do a little work on him, defensively, and get in there and get some stops against him, and then to just get us back out there to help and play some good fundamental defense."
The return of Sanders-Frison, Kamp and Gutierrez provided a big boost for the Bears late in the game, particularly the trio's steadying hands.
"I think that all three of us are the main leaders for our team," Sanders-Frison said. "I think the freshmen look to us to help them out when they're struggling, and that's our job: to make sure that they're OK and to encourage them when they make mistakes."
Sanders-Frison played an effective 21 minutes before being taken out with foul trouble, scoring a career-high 15 points on 4-of-6 shooting and 7-of-10 from the line and pulling down a game-high 10 boards for his first career double-double.
"Harper and I compliment each other pretty well," Sanders-Frison said. "We have a good high-low system between us that we worked on a lot during the summer, so I think that helped me to be able to get those easy baskets, and the point guards were getting me the ball early."
Even though Northridge was giving away fouls like it was already Black Friday, sending the Bears to the free throw line a staggering 50 times, Cal was unable to capitalize. Bears shot just 62% (31-for-50) from the line on the night, with the saving grace coming in the form of Gutierrez, who went 13-of-15 on his freebies.
"That's discouraging, and I really kind of scolded these guys, because we shoot 20 free throws in a competition every day," Montgomery said. "If you look at our free throw ladder percentages, I think we're like 93. I don't know if anybody is below 80 percent on probably over 300 free throws shot. I think what we've got to do is, we've got to take every day and shoot free throws with running on the line, because obviously, it's different. I was a little shocked that we missed free throws like we did. That surprised me a great deal."
The freshmen in particular had a tough time at the charity stripe, shooting 1-for-9, including an 0-for-3 night from Franklin, who finished the night with seven points and two assists.
"What happens in a situation like that, when you're getting fouled and they're forcing you to drive, they're very aggressive, they're forcing you to put the ball on the floor, we're going and getting fouled, and then we come up with an empty possession," Montgomery said. "There's 19 points we left out there that, had they not fouled us, maybe we score the ball, then all of the sudden, the lead changes a little bit.
"We did enough things to get to the basket to get 50 free throws, but we've got to convert more than that."
Franklin also got abused on defense a bit, including a backdoor lay-up in the waning moments of the game.
"We went over that in scouting report-not at length-but, sure enough, as soon as they came out on that last shot, boom, backdoor layup," Montgomery said. "They tried the same thing with Jorge, and it wasn't happening. That's just experience, and hopefully, guys will gain that as we move forward."
On the flipside, Gutierrez put in more than his usual workmanlike effort, setting career-highs in points (a team-high 18) and assists (eight) while adding two steals, registering only two fouls and going 13-of-15 on his free throws.
"Well, somebody's got to," Montgomery said. "You can't have everybody running around, and I thought that happened a little bit, where really, your point guard's job is to keep those young people and get them in a position to be successful, and if they break down, then those young guys, they don't know. They think, 'Wow, this is a lot of fun, let's just start running around.' Well, then you've got problems. I thought Jorge did a really good job of that. You look at it, he takes four shots, but he's got 18 points, eight assists and two turnovers. That's what he's got to do at that position, which means, as a point guard, he's doing his job."
Also proving to be money from the line was Kamp, who hit all four of his free throws and added seven boards and 12 points to go along with two assists and two steals.
"He takes the charges when you need one," Montgomery said. "He knows how to do that. He's not the biggest guy. He typically positions himself very well, he does the best job of anybody we have on showing up on screens. He's smart that way."
Kamp provided a spark down low and a steadying presence for his younger teammates in his first real game back from two knee surgeries.
"I was pretty nervous today," Kamp said. "My stomach was hurting all day, but as soon as I get out on that court, start warming up with the guys and they're talking to me and we're just all talking and having fun, I was just thankful to be back out there. It's the best feeling in the world for me."
• After scoring 22 points in the exhibition against Sonoma State last week, Crabbe was held to just eight points on 3-of-5 shooting, including 2-of-4 from three-point land. While he pulled down four rebounds, he also committed three turnovers.
"He doesn't like to make mistakes, which is a good thing," Kamp said. "I haven't seen it hurt him at this point, but there will be times when he's got to be a little more aggressive and learn to not worry about making mistakes, not worry about missing shots or making a turnover, and just go. That'll come."
• Cal out-rebounded Northridge 44-27, including a total of 27 from Kamp, Solomon, Sanders-Frison and Bak, who finished the game with three points and a block.
"I believe that that's very important for our team, because with us being the two veterans down low, if we can establish ourselves earlier, the freshmen won't get doubled," Sanders-Frison said. "Then, you can just kick it out when they start doubling us and make it easier for them to get into their own rhythm."
Kamp added that establishing the post game early will be key as the team learns more about itself in the coming weeks.
"We're both pretty unselfish, and I think, if we can get to the basket a few times and play strong and play solid down there, it'll make things a little easier for everybody," Kamp said.
• Cal has now won 39 of its last 41 non-conference home games, including the last 19 in a row.
• Montgomery is now 3-0 in season openers, and the Bears are undefeated in their last five.
• The last time Cal started two freshmen in a season-opener-as it did tonight in Franklin and Crabbe-was Nov. 18, 1999, when true freshmen Joe Shipp and Brian Wethers and redshirt freshman Donte Smith started against TCU in the Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska. The Bears won that game, 91-83.
• Cal made its first 10 shots from the free throw line tonight, spreading makes around to four different players.
• The Bears took 22 shots from the charity stripe in the first half, more than they took in 20 full games last year.
• Sanders-Frison finished with a career-high 15 points, and tied a career-best with 10 boards to register his first career double-double. His previous high was seven points, last done against Stanford on March 6, 2010. The last time he had 10 boards was on Dec. 29, 2009 against UC Santa Barbara.
• Gutierrez set a personal-best with eight assists. His previous high was six against Washington State in February.
• Cal's 50 free throws were the team's most since going 32-for-50 against Washington last Jan. 16. The school record is 55 attempts vs. Oregon on Feb. 10, 1977, in a game that took five overtime periods to decide.
• Nine Bears registered double-figure minutes tonight. 11 players saw action, and 10 of them scored. Three players tallied double-figures in points: Gutierrez, Sanders-Frison and Kamp. The Matadors only had two double-digit scorers in Michael Lizarraga and McLemore.